Promoting recovery from childhood trauma

Baby brains develop through relationships with adults, with repeated experiences forming strong structures in the developing brain. Healthy brains are maintained through relationships with others throughout life. And injured brains recover through interaction with healthy brains. Children can recover from childhood trauma when adults commit themselves to a mindful relationship with the child, patiently repeating experiences of being attuned with an adult, and of being held in mind and respectfully valued by an adult. Children and young people need adults who will both co-regulate with them and teach them.

Stabilisation is an essential phase in recovering from trauma. The child or young person who cannot self-regulate needs access to at least one adult who can, and who will commit to helping the child. Then the child and the adult can become attuned, so that the self-regulating adult brain becomes a template for the child to develop new brain patterns. Through repeated co-regulation with trusted adults the child becomes able to self-regulate.

Trauma leads to disintegration. Toxic stress prevents the brain from working as an integrated whole, holding together the flow of energy and information which defines the human mind. In order to recover, the traumatised child needs help from adults to integrate feelings and experiences with thoughts. When an adult holds a child in mind and helps the child to put their experiences into words the brain can integrate. As we tell ourselves the story of the life we are living our minds shape our brains. Trusted adults can help the child to create this healing narrative out of the experiences of everyday life.

As the healing brain becomes more integrated in function the child or young person will also need help from trusted adults to explore the new world of meaning and relationship that opens up through recovery from trauma. Human beings are very adaptive, but trauma destroys adaptiveness. Recovery means discovering the delights of social relationships based on respect and healthy self-esteem. And as resilience builds, so the child or young person can move on from the emotional desert of trauma to discover joy in living.

The human brain is very big and very complex, and it takes a long time to develop. The brain reaches adult form and function in the mid-twenties. If we are to grow adults with healthy brains for the next generation, able to live satisfying lives and play their part in society, then we need adults in this generation with the commitment, with the understanding, and with the vision to help children recover from trauma and build resilience. IRCT is here to support the work and the well-being of everyone who is willing to take on that challenge.

Need to know:

1. Children and young people can recover from trauma through relationships with trusted adults willing to hold the child in mind
2. The key processes are mindful co-regulation and mindful teaching
3. The child or young person will need repeated experiences of stabilisation through co-regulating with a trusted adult
4. They will also need phases of integration, as the adult helps them to make sense of themselves and the world around them
5. Trusted adults will also help the child or young person in phases of social adaptation, building safe relationships and joy in living

Checklist:

1. Remember that trustworthy adults are the key to recovery for traumatised children and young people
2. Recognise that behaviour is always a message about the internal world of the child or young person
3. Commit yourself to co-regulation – traumatised children and young people can’t self-regulate until they attune to a trusted adult who can
4. Commit yourself to teaching – traumatised children and young people can’t make sense of the world of feelings and relationships until a trusted adult teaches them how to put words to their experience
5. Look after yourself – trauma is toxic, and secondary trauma can affect those who live and work with traumatised children
6. Keep learning – new research is emerging all the time, and learning from it to develop practice also builds your own resilience